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"The Perfect Fraud" by Ellen LaCorte

"The Perfect Fraud" by Ellen LaCorte (Harper)

"The Perfect Fraud" by Ellen LaCorte; Harper (292 pages, $26.99)

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Call it "Strangers on a Plane," with a twist.

In the classic 1950 psychological thriller "Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith, made into a film in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock, two men agree to "trade" the murders of someone close to them in order to make the crimes look random.

In Ellen LaCorte's debut novel, "The Perfect Fraud," two young women whose lives are in chaos meet during a flight, and soon lives will hang in the balance.

That fateful flight won't occur until halfway through the book. First, LaCorte takes us into the lives of the women, who don't yet have any connection, in alternating first-person chapters.

Claire Hathaway lives amid the unearthly beauty of Sedona, Ariz., and works as a psychic, so you might expect her to be laid back. You would be wrong. She is a ball of anger and resentment - of her sweetly doting boyfriend, Cal, who does everything to please her, and of her mother, who also works as a psychic and brought Claire up in the family business. The thing is, Mom really does have powers, but Claire fakes hers and is miserable about it.

Rena Cole lives in New Jersey with her chronically ill 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie. Rena devotes all her time to caring for the little girl, a sweet child who suffers from constant digestive problems that have doctors stumped. Parents should advocate for their child, but Rena downright bullies medical personnel, yelling and storming around and demanding all sorts of tests.

She also spars with her ex-husband, Gary, who wants to spend more time with Stephanie (although Rena is privately not at all sure he's the child's father). But he's the one with health insurance, so she has to cede some ground. Rena writes "Stephanie's Battle Blog," a combination of rants about doctors and (ironically, given Stephanie's sickly little self) "Rena's Way to Well: Feed Your Kid Right."

Claire is trying to hold off Cal's proposals of marriage and figure out what she wants to do with her life when she gets an alarming phone call. Her beloved father, an invalid for years, has suffered a stroke and isn't likely to recover. Rena, meanwhile, has located a top pediatric gastroenterologist in Phoenix and decides to move there for Stephanie's treatment.

The pair meet when they're seated on the same row on a flight from Philadelphia, as Claire is returning to Arizona after her father's death. At the time, her only response to motormouthed Rena is not at all psychic - Claire just wishes she would shut up.

But once Claire is back in Sedona, weird things happen. During her readings, she really does seem to sense things she couldn't know. And then she begins to sense things about Rena and Stephanie - some of them things she'd rather not know.

LaCorte keeps the reader off balance early on - Claire and Rena are both so angry it's tough to figure out where our sympathies should lie. But as the story's suspense builds those roles clarify, right up to a chilly little twist at the end.

Visit the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) at www.tampabay.com

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